Little Liars: Why Kids Lie and What to Do About It

“Did you eat the last cookie?” you demand of your child.
“No,” your child answers, around a mouthful of cookie crumbs.

Lying is common among children. In fact, a study out of the University of Waterloo observing children in their own homes found that 96 percent of young children lie at some point. Four-year-olds lie, on average, every two hours, and six-year-olds lie, on average, every hour.

In laboratory research, scientists study lying through a temptation scenario. The experimenter tells a child, “Don’t peek!,” then leaves the room. Video cameras record what actually happens while the experimenter is out of sight so it can be compared to what children claim happened when the experimenter later asks, “Did you peek?” Victoria Talwar and her colleagues at McGill University find that almost all two-year-olds peek and about a third of them then lie, claiming that they didn’t peek. Among three- to four-year-olds, about two-thirds peek and almost all of them lie about it. The slightly older kids have somewhat more self-control to resist peeking, but are also more likely to lie.

Lying requires sophisticated thinking. Kids not only have to imagine something that is not true, they also have to anticipate how someone else will respond to their tale, remember the story they create to maintain it, and control the impulse to blurt out the truth. The older kids are, the better they become at lying. Victoria Talwar and Kang Lee describe three stages in children’s lying:

Stage 1. Children begin to lie around age two or three. These first lies often focus on just denying misbehavior. They may involve wishful thinking more than deliberate efforts to deceive. From the perspective of young children, if they say they didn’t do it, then their parents won’t be mad, and it will somehow magically erase their misbehavior!

Stage 2. Around age four, children begin to be able to imagine how someone else might think. Their lies become more believable, because they take into account what the listener does or doesn’t know. They know the difference between truth and lying, and that lying is bad, but they also want to please adults, so they lie to cover up misbehavior.

Stage 3. Around age seven or eight, children not only are capable of deliberately deceiving someone, they also can manage to stick to a false story and to look and sound sincere while doing so. Kids this age tend to lie because they don’t want to get in trouble and because they don’t want to think of themselves as “bad.”

Although most children will experiment with lying, as parents, it’s our job to teach them about the importance of honesty. In general, we want to avoid backing our kids into a corner with “Did you…?” accusations. Angrily demanding a confession encourages kids to lie, and the more they lie to us, the easier it becomes for them to lie again. Research offers some practical strategies for encouraging children to tell the truth:

1) Ask for a promise of truthfulness. Getting kids to promise they will tell the truth before we ask what happened increases the chance that they will be honest. Getting that promise makes it clear what you want from your child and puts the value of honesty right at the front of your child’s mind.

2) Explain that honesty will please you and won’t lead to punishment. Talwar’s research shows that threatening kids with punishment for lying doesn’t encourage them to tell the truth. On the other hand, saying that that they will not get in trouble and that you will be pleased if they are honest often does encourage kids to be honest.

3) Use inspiring stories. In one intriguing study, Talwar and her colleagues had an experimenter read children a story about George Washington telling the truth about chopping down a cherry tree and his father reacting with delight to his honesty. Hearing this story made it much less likely that kids would lie about peeking. Hearing a story about the boy who cried wolf was not helpful in reducing lying. The positive lesson of George Washington may be more compelling or inspiring to kids than the negative example of the boy who cried wolf.

4) Model honesty. Parents often lie to children to get them to cooperate, to avoid upsetting them, or just because it seems easier than giving a truthful but complicated answer. Unfortunately, hearing adults lie may give kids the impression that lying is okay. A study from the University of California, San Diego found that elementary school children who heard a lie from an adult about the presence of candy in another room were more likely to lie to cover up their misbehavior. If we want our children to be honest, we need to be good examples of honesty.

Encouraging your child to tell the truth is important, but what should you do if you know they are lying? Definitely don’t label your child a liar. That won’t help your child embrace truth telling. Instead, gently insist on what you know happened, explain that you expect honesty, and give your child a path forward by finding a way for them to make amends for the misbehavior.

Have you caught your child lying? Do you remember a lie you told as a child? What happened?

This article is for general educational purposes only. It does not constitute and should not substitute for individual professional advice, psychotherapy, or the provision of psychological services.

About Eileen Kennedy-Moore, PhD

Eileen Kennedy-Moore, PhD is a clinical psychologist in Princeton, NJ (lic. # 35SI00425400). She is an internationally published author of books about parenting and children’s feelings and friendships. She is also professor for The Great Courses audio/video series Raising Emotionally and Socially Healthy Kids.

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